Review: A World Full of Animal Stories

Usually I like to review a series at the beginning of each month, but this time I want to share a collection of stories all in one bright volume. Since Christmas my children and I have enjoyed delving into A World Full of Animal Stories: 50 Folktales and Legends written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Aitch.

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I love folk stories; they show us how to respect what is different and celebrate what is the same about other peoples and places. This book is like a treasure chest. The tales are organized according to their continent of origin (Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Oceania) and then each is identified more specifically by the modern country or tribe from which it came (Ghana, Brazil, Lakota, et cetera). The range of donor nations could always be broader, and I would like to have seen a fuller representation from South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East; but there is a good mix of cultures included that will certainly encourage young readers to stretch their minds around the globe.

The stories are told in the traditional spirit; most are witty moral fables or cautionary tales that encourage cleverness and punish pride. In most of the tales the animals can talk; in some they interact with humans and in others they deal only with each other. There is an emotive blend of humor and tragedy, wit and foolishness, lessons learned and opportunities lost. The result is a story for every mood and a universal reflection of this life we all live.

Each story is tightly packed on one to three pages, and can generally be read within ten minutes. They are well-written and expressive, paced to build the climax without giving the story away. Along with “The Ugly Duckling” and one or two other tales that are well known in the United States, children meet the fabled West African trickster Ananse, a Bear Prince and a horse named Dapplegrim. With titles like “Why the Warthog is Ugly” and “The Owl of Cowlyd Coomb” it is undeniably hard to stop at just one.

If I have a complaint about this book, it concerns the ratio of pictures to text. The illustrations vary pleasingly in size and scale, and portray the stories with brilliance; I would only like to see more of them, and I suspect that little folks would also enjoy more images to enliven the words they’re hearing. But this does not detract from the stories or imply that they are boring; it’s simply that I could never get enough of these gorgeous pictures.

This treasury would make a thoughtful gift, as it can easily provide hours of quality reading for everyone: from toddlers first learning their animals to middle schoolers beginning to appreciate just how big the world is. I am also looking forward to finding a copy of McAllister’s other book: A Year Full of Stories: 52 Folk Tales and Legends from Around the World. This volume is illustrated by Christopher Corr, and appears to be just as tantalizingly vibrant as the animal stories.

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Happy reading!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: National Geographic Kids Stories: HeartwarmingTrue Tales from the Animal Kingdom, written by Jane Yolen and her children, and illustrated by Jui Ishida

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Series Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society

The longer nights of autumn provide a cozy opportunity to begin a page-turning book series, and I have eagerly devoured this one: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

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Following orphan Reynard Muldoon, the series brings together four children of exceptional abilities who share one other feature: they are all alone. They all answer an advertisement that promises adventure to children with certain unique qualities; and upon passing a very peculiar examination they meet Mr. Benedict and learn of his efforts to uncover and resist an unknown evil. The children accept their mission, without knowing fully what will be expected of them, or whether they can even trust this strange benefactor. They soon discover that the threat to their world is indeed very real, and they will have to work together quickly to find a way to stop it.

As Reynie hesitatingly forms relationships with Kate, Constance, and Sticky, he realizes that each of them will have to face their fears and, to some extent, overcome their own independent instincts in order to face a common foe. They must rely not only on their skills, but on each other. Trust does not come easily to the foursome, but it grows alongside a mutual respect as they work to solve a mystery that bears enormous consequences for the world in which, previously, they had no real home.

What makes these stories so fascinating is that it does not take place in a magical world; the children’s abilities are not supernatural, but powers of critical thinking and longing for truth. The protagonists are a bit like juvenile Sherlocks, reasoning their way through a tangle of problems. The author builds on an impressive range of facts to help his subjects along, and in so doing creates a place where both knowledge and deduction are celebrated. The writing itself is intelligent, with a thrilling vocabulary and appreciation for the most minute detail.

These stories certainly make it cool to be the smart kid, but they don’t deny a young person’s corresponding emotional or personal development. Reynie is a deeply thoughtful child who is keenly considerate of what others might be thinking or feeling. When he faces the temptation to do what seems most expedient for his own security, his innate loyalty ultimately puts the welfare of others first. As the children learn to get along, they all learn that it takes patience, kindness, and some sacrifice to care for another person. The author traces these developments with a deft sensitivity that is not the least bit cloying.

The exceptional plot is full of risk, riddles, and suspense; and I dare not give it away. Suffice it to say that you will be guessing until the last page. The antagonist proves to be quite diabolical, and at times the play between the themes of abandonment and trust is truly nerve-wracking. Yet the discomfort is warranted as the reader subconsciously begins to address these questions of human longing and achievement in her own mind. The end is wholly satisfying as each of the children, having played their own unique part, finds a place of genuine belonging.

Also striking in this series is the way the young operatives are treated by the mysterious Mr. Benedict and his bizarre staff; the children are seen very much as fully formed individuals, and accorded the respect of equals. Such a partnership is unusual in books for this age group, which tend to develop tension between youth and adults.

The friendships established in the first book endure adventures that will interest children from the age of eight or nine on up through the teen years, but I would particularly commend the whole series to children of a mature and sensitive nature. They will find encouragement to press through their fears and realize their potential as vital members of society. The series would make an excellent gift for a child who struggles to find their place, or needs reassurance that they have one.

Happy reading, Families.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

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Review: Book Girl, by Sarah Clarkson

Today I have a special find for my female bibliophile friends… and ladies, this book is especially for you. Yes, it will ultimately benefit the children in your life, but this one is a treasure for you. I am thrilled to share with you Book Girl by writer, speaker, and blogger Sarah Clarkson.

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This book is a celebration of the sisterhood enjoyed by women who love to read. Encouragingly written from a Christian perspective, it discusses the intelligent empathy that women develop when they are thoughtful lifelong readers, and the values they impart by sharing good books with one another. For by reading we not only encounter our own thoughts and feelings, but we engage with people, places, and ideas far beyond our own imagining. We are shaped by what we read; so we ought to read what is good and true and beautiful.

Inspired by her mother’s example and the recent birth of her own daughter, Clarkson’s enthusiasm for quality reading is contagious. She offers advice for “book girls” of all stages, including suggestions for how to make reading time a pleasant priority. As she acknowledges, some of us were born reading and haven’t stopped; many have been distracted by life and don’t read as much as we would like; others have never developed the habit but wonder what people love about all those printed pages. Wherever you fall – and whatever your age – this book is for you.

The author makes a compelling case for not only why women should read, but what we should read: books that form as a whole person and nourish us through the seasons of life. Above all, books that prepare us to become the heroine in our own story, embracing and giving all that is good to the world.

To that end, Clarkson has here shared with readers many of her favorite and most formative reading recommendations. Her collection is finer than gold. She painstakingly arranges fiction, biographies, spiritual classics and more into more than twenty book lists. With uplifting accounts of how each theme supports the overall balance of the reading life, she goes on to offer a short review of each title. The scope is breathtaking and includes everything from Wendell Berry to P.G. Wodehouse. Other favorites include C.S. Lewis, Charlotte Brontë, Madeleine L’Engle, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and dozens more for children and adults.

The book could easily be savored in its entirety or in useful tidbits, but it is not one to lay aside after one reading. It is made to be revisited frequently over many years, as a wholesome source of inspiration. (I am quite serious about “many years”; there is enough here to keep the most serious bluestocking busy for a long time.)

Most of my reviews are for children’s books, but this one is an investment in all of us. It is by being readers that we teach our children to become readers, and share with them the exquisite graces of the reading life. Book Girl is all of that and more, for it nudges us to fill our hearts and heads with the very best – and then to share it with the world.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Caught Up In A Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children, also by Sarah Clarkson

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